India's fitness standards prove decisive in Asian Champions Trophy title win

Akashdeep Singh celebrates after scoring against Malaysia in the final of the Asian Champions Trophy 2023. Hockey India

India were coming to the end of their 11th game in 18 days. They had landed in Chennai a couple of days before the start of the Asian Champions Trophy. And yet, towards the end of the final, India were the ones making all the running while the Malaysians visibly ran out of steam and had a few players cramping up. It was an indication of how superior the Indians' fitness standards were to their opposition's and was once again a huge factor in the title victory.

"We've almost played a major tournament and then some," said chief coach Craig Fulton. "We've been on the road now for 24 or 25 days, so we go our separate ways tomorrow for a little break, and I think it's well-deserved."

India were chasing the final against Malaysia, having gone 1-3 down in the first half. It was a taxing effort to come back from the brink and win 4-3, especially with the schedule that India have had, having to travel between continents after the conclusion of the three-nation international tournament in Spain. "It's necessary that you have to be at peak fitness at crucial moments - and that's towards the end of a tournament," Fulton said.

"If we were 2-0 or 3-0 up, we would have had to be fit enough to manage them coming at us, taking their keeper off, playing with an extra man. Fitness is the priority in this modern game that we're playing today," the South African said.

The focus on fitness in Indian hockey isn't something that has come about recently. It was the bedrock upon which the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics was won, it was what enabled India to score the number of late goals they've done in the FIH Pro League in the last couple of seasons.

"I think any team that plays us know we're really fit, and they have to match us in all four quarters," Fulton said.

The Indian coach also added that his players' fitness also helps them mentally, in addition to being the physical specimens that they are. "I think the biggest [effect] is that mentally you start to believe you have another gear. We showed tonight we can do that," he said.

While Fulton's style so far has been a bit more subdued than Graham Reid's in that India don't always play the high press, it isn't any less intense, with players constantly having to work hard in both attacking and defensive transitions. While Fulton wants India to play with a controlled approach, he also recognizes that speed is a necessity in the modern game.

"Your skill is derived from your level of fitness. If you want to play a fast-paced game, you need to have that aerobic speed, you need that sprint repeatability, you need it all. I think we're growing in confidence that we can play hockey at a high tempo," he said.

"I think there's no guarantee that you'll win just because you're fit, but you definitely won't be winning many games if you're not."

Right now, India are winning more games than they lose, and that is in no small part down to the conditioning of the squad, which is one of the fittest in world hockey.